Slanted CSIS Report on 28 Pages Showcases Saudi Influence on U.S. Think Tanks

By Brian P. McGlinchey

Anthony Cordesman
Anthony Cordesman

On Thursday, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) published a white paper and companion article ostensibly meant to furnish government decision-makers with an impartial analysis of what’s at stake in the potential declassification of 28 pages that are said to document indications of Saudi government ties to the 9/11 hijackers.

Instead, the 54-year old policy research organization furnished something entirely different: a case study in Saudi Arabian influence on the think tanks it finances.

A “Muscular Arm” of Foreign Government Lobbying

According to a 2014 New York Times expose that revealed a broad trend of foreign government funding of American think tanks, Saudi Arabia has given money to a variety of the institutions, including CSIS, the Atlantic Council, Brookings Institution and the Middle East Institute.

After coming under pressure for its lack of funding transparency, CSIS now lists donors on its website, which currently reflects the Oct 1 2014 through Sep 30 2015 fiscal year. While the government of Saudi Arabia is absent, the state-owned Saudi Aramco Services Company appears in the highest category of corporate donors.

CSISGovernment donors to CSIS include the Saudi-allied United Arab Emirates and the United States. Just as significantly, CSIS receives money from a who’s who of defense contractors that profit from arms sales to the kingdom and have an interest in sustaining the close U.S.-Saudi relationship, including Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon, United Technologies, BAE Systems and L-3 Communications.

In their 2014 piece, New York Times writers Eric Lipton, Brooke Williams and Nicholas Confessore found that contributions from abroad are “increasingly transforming the once-staid think tank world into a muscular arm of foreign governments’ lobbying in Washington.”

The CSIS report—rich in praise for the Saudi monarchy while lacking even a single quote from any of the many credible champions of 28 pages declassification—lends enormous credence to their conclusion.

The paper was written by Anthony H. Cordesman. If that name rings a bell for Blog subscribers, it may be because this isn’t the first time he’s served to exemplify Saudi-friendly think tank output.

Slanted from the Start

The title of his latest work—“Dealing Fairly with a Key Ally: Releasing 28 Pages on the Possible Saudi Role in the 9/11 Attacks in the Original 9/11 Commission Report”—simultaneously signals his slant and his sloppiness.

  • The slant: Cordesman’s overarching characterization of Saudi Arabia as a “key ally.” While a commonly-used label, it’s a dubious one given the kingdom’s long history of exporting extremism. More to the point, however, according to some who have read them, the 28 pages themselves offer proof that Saudi Arabia isn’t the “ally” it’s advertised to be. The release of the 28 pages could facilitate an evaluation of that label, but for Cordesman and the Saudi-funded CSIS, the ally status is an unquestionable, bedrock premise.
  • The slop: The 28 pages are in the report of a 2002 congressional intelligence inquiry into 9/11. Cordesman, however, repeatedly tells us they were produced by the “Original 9/11 Commission,” an entity that presumably preceded the 9/11 Commission, yet—like the notion of CSIS’s intellectual honesty regarding Saudi Arabia—is wholly imagined.

To be fair, the paper is labeled a “working draft.” While that disclaimer may suffice in overlooking the many copywriting errors found throughout the document, Cordesman’s slip on the simple foundational detail of the provenance of the 28 pages is just the first of many indicators of shallow and selective research on his part.

The errors of fact and form may be indicative of a CSIS rush to publish a Saudi-friendly analysis in a week in which the Senate passed a bill that would clear the way for 9/11 victims to sue the kingdom, and in which Director of National Intelligence James Clapper indicated his own portion of the declassification review was nearly complete.

High Praise for Saudi Arabia

Bodies of Executed Saudis Dangle with Separated Heads
Bodies of Executed Saudis Dangle Along With Their Separated Heads

Early on, Cordesman briefly, delicately and opaquely acknowledges that Saudi Arabia has “different values” from the United States and that “there are many areas where Saudi Arabia needs to make reforms.”

With that vague, check-the-box caveat out of the way, Cordesman plunges into typical form: “We also, however, have long shown that our two countries have more than enough common goals and values to be lasting strategic partners, both in military terms and in counterterrorism terms. We have seen that our partnership has been of great value to the United States, as well as to Saudi Arabia.”

The report is peppered with warm references to Saudi Arabia: “a major ally,” “a key ally,” “an important ally,” “a key partner in counterterrorism,” “a strategic partner,” “a key partner in both Gulf and regional security.”

There’s no questioning that Saudi Arabia and the United States have collaborated deeply. However, this collaboration—which has included joint sponsorship of Islamic extremism, the destabilization of Syria and a merciless attack on Yemen that benefits al-Qaeda—has been uniformly devastating to security and ultimately perilous to American lives at home and abroad.

In considering the “ally” label and the fruit of that “alliance,” we should all recognize that it’s possible for a foreign government to simultaneously be an ally of the American government and an adversary of the American people.

28 Pages of “Conspiracy Theories”

Cordesman acknowledges that he doesn’t know what’s in the 28 pages, but nonetheless presents his hunch that “much of the 28 pages consists largely of unvalidated charges and conspiracies.” Citing his years as director of intelligence assessment for the Secretary of Defense, he writes, “I learned all too well that (the Middle East) is a region that exports even more conspiracy theories than petroleum.”

Former Sen. Bob Graham
Former Sen. Bob Graham

The “conspiracy theory” smear withers when you hear directly from the principal advocates of declassification. Apparently realizing that, Cordesman strikingly sidesteps any references to former Senate intelligence committee chairman Bob Graham, Rep. Walter Jones, Rep. Stephen Lynch, Rep. Thomas Massie and 9/11 Commission members John Lehman and Bob Kerrey.

While any impartial researcher of the 28 pages turns first to the statements made by those who have read them, they’re tellingly of no value to Cordesman. Thus, policymakers and journalists who consume the CSIS report never see remarks like these:

Nor does Cordesman share this noteworthy claim by an anonymous government official: “We’re talking about a coordinated network that reaches right from the hijackers to multiple places in the Saudi government. If the 28 pages were to be made public, I have no question that the entire relationship with Saudi Arabia would change overnight.”

“No Idea” What Motivates Saudi Sponsorship of Extremism

With credible declassification advocates censored, Cordesman comfortably continues along his “conspiracy theory” line of attack.

CSISIn a clumsy pair of sentences that test one’s willingness to grant “working draft” mercy, Cordesman says “there is an amazing lack of discussion in any of the various media reports on those calling for release of the 28 pages regarding any clear motive on the part of the Saudi individual involved, much less any clear motive on the part of the Saudi government or Saudi Royal Family (sic). There is not only is no (sic) credible evidence of ‘who’, there is no credible mention of ‘why.'”

Cordesman wouldn’t have to search far to find quality analysis of the question of motive. In one of the most frequently-cited pieces on the 28 pages, Lawrence Wright in The New Yorker tidily sums up the why, and throws in the when and how as a bonus:

The theory behind the lawsuit against the Saudis goes back to the 1991 Gulf War. The presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia was a shattering event in the country’s history, calling into question the ancient bargain between the royal family and the Wahhabi clerics, whose blessing allows the Saud family to rule. In 1992, a group of the country’s most prominent religious leaders issued the Memorandum of Advice, which implicitly threatened a clerical coup. The royal family, shaken by the threat to its rule, accommodated most of the clerics’ demands, giving them more control over Saudi society. One of their directives called for the creation of a Ministry of Islamic Affairs, which would be given offices in Saudi embassies and consulates. As the journalist Philip Shenon writes, citing John Lehman, the former Secretary of the Navy and a 9/11 commissioner, “it was well-known in intelligence circles that the Islamic affairs office functioned as the Saudis’ ‘fifth column’ in support of Muslim extremists.”

There is of course no public precision on “who” is named in the 28 pages—after all, the “who” is likely the principal reason George W. Bush classified them. Congressman Jones insists the secrecy of the 28 pages isn’t for national security: “It’s about the Bush Administration and its relationship with the Saudis.”

An Agenda-Driven Report Right Down to a Sentimental Cover That Whispers: “A Marriage This Old Must Be Worth Saving”

Asked if the 28 pages name names, the 9/11 Commission’s Lehman told 60 Minutes, “Yes. The average intelligent watcher of 60 Minutes would recognize them instantly.”

Meanwhile, it’s public record that the wife of Prince Bandar bin Sultan—the Saudi ambassador to the United States during 9/11 and a close personal friend of Bush—wrote cashier’s checks that eventually found their way into the hands of apparent U.S.-based Saudi “handlers” of two future hijackers.

One could generously ascribe Cordesman’s proclaimed ignorance of “why” and potential “who’s” to a complete lack of research, but that would require believing that a 40-year veteran of Gulf security and terror study didn’t already encounter that information long ago.

Either way, Cordesman wants us to know he is completely baffled. The former national security assistant to Sen. John McCain writes, “I have to assume that there must be something more about motive in the 28 pages, but I have no idea what it could be.” All that’s missing from his flatly unbelievable and comically emphatic claim of ignorance is a trio of exclamation points.

An Echo Chamber of Government Stances

For the product of a “policy research organization” that has been crowned by the University of Pennsylvania as the world’s top think tank for international security, the paper cites a very narrow range of views. Over the course of 15 pages, Cordesman almost exclusively taps just three categories of sources:

  • His own wisdom
  • Official pronouncements of the Saudi government
  • Official pronouncements of the U.S. government

Apparently, Cordesman doesn’t recognize the particular pitfall of relying on government pronouncements when addressing an issue where the government has—through its very classification decision—explicitly indicated that it has something to hide.

For example, proclaiming his desire to move “beyond conspiracy theories,” Cordesman says he sought “more credible official data.” To that end, he cites a March 2015 report of the 9/11 Review Commission, which concluded that “there is no new information to date that would alter the original findings of the 9/11 Commission regarding the individuals responsible for the 9/11 attacks or for supporting those responsible for the attacks.”

Cordesman adds, “It is striking that the FBI report does not name any member of the Saudi royal family or senior Saudi official.”

Dan Christensen
Dan Christensen

Though Cordesman would have the reader assume the 9/11 Review Commission’s report is deeply credible,’s Dan Christensen explains that the 9/11 Review Commission was an evaluation of the FBI that was managed by the FBI—the same FBI that failed to tell the congressional joint inquiry about its investigation of a wealthy Saudi family in Sarasota that suddenly fled the country two weeks before 9/11.

The FBI initially denied it held any records of that investigation. Under the duress of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, however, the FBI surrendered 80,000 pages of documents to a federal judge who is now painstakingly reviewing them for declassification.

Given the FBI has been a participant in what Graham called “a pervasive pattern of covering up the role of Saudi Arabia in 9/11, by all the agencies of the federal government which have access to information that might illuminate Saudi Arabia’s role in 9/11,” its published conclusions about any Saudi role in the attacks are deeply suspect.

They do, however, nicely serve the shared communications objectives of the Saudi monarchy, the U.S. government and, apparently, CSIS.

Policy Poison

If this paper had been produced by a Saudi-sympathetic journalist, it wouldn’t be cause for concern. However, the fact that it was published by an esteemed think tank that shapes the opinions of U.S. government officials and, by extension, American policy makes it truly alarming.

Remove the prestigious CSIS branding, and intelligent readers could be excused for guessing that this poorly researched, deeply biased and hastily-written piece was produced by a Saudi-owned entity.

Now that I think about it, I suppose they’d be right.

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